Within our first four transplanted years, we managed to cross Alaska and The Oregon Coast off the must-visit list. Gold stars for the new residents! Both places indeed strikingly beautiful and both prompting repeat visits.
For some reason – mostly because we inexplicably tend to explore south and east more than north – it took us over 12 years to finally complete our Washingtonian Initiation Rites by vacationing in the San Juan Islands. Those gold stars were about to get revoked.
Having just returned from a four-day San Juan Island discovery, I am eagerly expecting our Welcome to Washington certificate and Newcomers Kit containing Dutch Bros. coffee coupons, Columbia Sport all-weather gear, and directions to the nearest Subaru dealer. Just in time for the rainy season (aka October-May)!
I have to say, I now understand the residency requirements.
The San Juan Islands are in many ways quintessentially Pacific Northwest. They are rugged and treed and damp. They are beautiful in the grey and dazzling in the sunlight. They require ferry boats to reach and whales and bald eagles are common sights. The residents are friendly and welcoming and earthy. There are yachts and yurts, arts and cannabis, artisan chocolates and locally sourced chickens.
There are four islands on the ferry schedule but really just two that most people visit.
While ferrying about, we met a couple who live on the less popular Lopez Island. They talked about how each island’s locals have their own way of waving to each other while driving. Lopezers raise their pointer finger. If you don’t wave or use the wrong finger, you are obviously a tourist.
We also chatted with Sister Mary Daniel who was shopping on San Juan Island for the retreat center she helps staff on exceptionally quiet Shaw Island. Her bounty included about 25 pounds of galvanized staples and a weed whacker. The image of a nun wielding a weed whacker is one I so wish I could share but I didn’t want to be disrespectful to ask for a photo. Dang it.
We spent one day exploring San Juan Island – the most popular island in the archipelago. It has the islands' largest town (Friday Harbor, population 2,278) and is close enough to Canada that Verizon wanted to charge me international rates when we were on the west side of the island.
|We visited on a Wednesday because we are rebels.|
However, we spent most of our time on Orcas Island -- oddly not named for the orca whales who frequent the nearby waters. It has the tallest mountain in the islands (Mount Constitution at 2,398 feet elevation) and is shaped like Gilda Radner’s head from her Saturday Night Live days.
|See? Gilda. You'll never be able to see an Orcas map again without seeing her.|
We brought books and games and wine and tea and coloring books, expecting a quiet, slow, do-nothing escape. I was secretly hoping for a nice rain storm.
We read a little (mostly at night) and brought home some unconsumed beverages. We never played a game and I never broke out the Sharpies. Instead we found ourselves wandering, exploring, eating, riding boats, and searching for whales. Not quite as relaxing as anticipated but still great fun and a wonderful escape to new scenery.
|The view didn't suck.|
We quite enjoyed Orcas Island; when we return to the San Juans (because we will) we will likely stay there again. It felt more relaxed and meandery than the more touristy and action-packed San Juan Island.
Orcas’s main town (Eastsound) is about half-way around the island from the ferry terminal so it definitely requires a car to visit. We liked the town; it had some interesting local shops, a good variety of restaurants, and was very walkable. By that I mean flat. Because one thing about the San Juans – they are a hilly bunch.
I’m not sure I would have noticed the hills as much were it not for my 4.5 month post-op knee. Although my recovery is going splendidly, hills are still a bit of a challenge for my new ACL. They feel fine in the moment but a couple hours later, my knee has a lot to say about hills.
So I can report that Friday Harbor is a rather steep town right off the boat; Eastsound is delightfully flat right at the water’s edge. In fact, Eastsound is flat enough – right at Gilda’s hair part – that one day we walked all the way through town to the small airport and across Orcas Island to the other side. It was a 4.2 mile day and totally worth the aches for the experience. And bragging rights.
|Victory selfie on the other side of the island!|
Our last full day on Orcas we decided to go in search of the non-namesakes. We found a well-reviewed whale watching company nearby and set out on a small zippy boat with about 25 other eager whale spotters.
It was a good thing our boat was the fastest in the fleet because we had to motor about 40 miles to outside Victoria, British Columbia (we could see a cruise ship in port) to find a pod of killer whales. But wow, the trek and back-spasmy ocean bumps were so worth it!
The pod was about 7 or 8 whales thick with one baby. The island oceanographers have ways of identifying the local pods so our captain knew exactly which whales we were looking at.
Federal law says boats cannot get within 200 yards of the whales so we kept our legal distance. Nevertheless, we were able to see their white eye patches and hear them breathe. HEAR THEM BREATHE!
The orca pod was very soothing to watch. They swam in arcs in and out of the water with some rhythm and predictability. Typically only four dorsal fins were visible at a time but occasionally we would see six or seven. And then the fluke – seeing the tails flip up dragging ocean water along was soooo much better than anything at SeaWorld. There’s something so much grander and more exhilarating about seeing animals in nature instead of a man-made setting.
|It's rather tricky bobbing in a small boat with a camera and|
getting any photos that resemble a whale. I'm quite
pleased with this one out of about 56 attempts.
But honestly, even more than the orca pod, the most breathtaking part of our whale watching excursion happened towards the beginning.
We were in the waters off of San Juan Island (truly the island you want to be on if you want to see whales from land). Our captain had been radioed that a humpback whale was somewhere nearby. It wasn’t hard to figure out where because about three other boats with similar intel were bobbing around with eyes peeled.
Our boat got very excited when we spotted the water from the blow spout. And then that fluke thing happened. It was so cool!
The captain said that the fluke flip meant the whale was going for a deep dive which could last for up to 30 minutes but typically lasted only about 7-9 minutes. And so we bobbed some more.
When the humpback whale surfaced again, it did something truly magical: it breached. TWICE.
You know that whale-jumping-completely-out-of-the-water-and-doing-a-belly-flop thing that you see in National Geographic documentaries? That thing that whales do on command at SeaWorld but you can’t imagine ever seeing in nature? That whale thing that if I had managed to capture with my camera would have finally earned me a photography blue ribbon at the Fair? Yes, THAT! The humpback whale did THAT! With a curtain of water hanging from its fins and body and a wake that caused our boat to bounce.
It was nothing short of magnificent. I’m still in awe.
So yeah, that was our long put off trip to the San Juan Islands, complete with breaching whales. It’s now hard to figure why we waited so long. Since we’ve done most of the big scouting, I suspect on our next trip our games will get played and the books read and the Sharpies uncapped. It might even rain. And it will be just as perfectly Washington.